Relationship Between English Debate And Critical Thinking Education Essay

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Critical thinking and ability to converse well in English are among attributes for a student and also for people who is already working. Wide competitions among high-flying academic achievers have led to this situation including Malaysia. Students who are lacking these skills might not have a better opportunity compared to students who portray critical thinking ability. Since critical thinking is considered as one of the important aspects of debate, this research will study the relationship between English debate and critical thinking. Students of International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP), The Malay College Kuala Kangsar organised an English debate competition for the new intake of Form 4 students of the school. Critical thinking test was conducted on the students before and after the debate. Based on the research, it is found that the relationship of debate and critical thinking is significant. To improve the findings, perceptions of the students about the improvement of critical thinking were gathered through questionnaires. It is also found that the students felt that debate competition assisted them positively in improving critical thinking skills.

Table of Contents






Literature Review






Data Research and Analysis




References and bibliography



Literature Review

The concept of debating is defending what you believe in by giving arguments and abiding by the rules of conduct ( Debating has its place in our society such as in politics and education. For example in the United States, a presidential debate takes place before the election itself. This is important as it shows the credibility of the candidates to the people. During that process, their skills of argumentation and critical analysing of an issue is very important to gain voters confidence. Without these skills, voters could have simply point out the incapability of the candidate to lead their country. One of the important aspects of debate is critical thinking, but the question is; "What is the relationship between debates and critical thinking?" Firstly we need to understand what is critical thinking. Potter (2011) states that:

"Critical thinking is the process by which concepts, facts and ideas are analyzed, internalized and comprehended. The steps that comprise a critical thinking approach are: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation."

An understanding of being a critical thinker that should be recognized for this research was illustrated by Paul (1982) (as cited from Mason, 2007):

"A strong critical thinker is able to understand the bigger picture holistically, to see different worldwide perspectives, rather than just to critique the individual steps in a particular argument."

Based on the definition by (Potter, 2011) and characteristics of a critical thinker by Paul (1982) (as cited from Mason, 2007), I had outlined the important aspects and understanding of critical thinking and how debate will impact these key aspects. Critical thinking is highly demanded in the working period of one's life. Thus, it is logical to state that it is also important in all levels of education especially in the tertiary level. University course needs their students to be able to read critically and argue well in writing as this will help them to score better. Debate is known as a way to enhance critical thinking skills. Besides, debate is also one of the major activities that are being done in schools, colleges or even at the university level. The question that had been posed many times is about the significance of debate to the students. It has been implied that there is not much empirical evidence exists to strengthen the belief on how debating will impact its participants positively even it has been a major activity for a very long time (Greenstreet, 1993). As suggested by Sheckels (1984) (as cited from Greenstreet, 1993), debate teaches important thinking skills, including investigating and solving problems, analyzing and scrutinizing argumentation, and forceful but rational challenging of other's arguments. This statement is coherent with what a debater needs to achieve in order to have a strong argument in any debate. Without the ability to challenge the arguments of their opponent, a side will not be able to counter their opponents point in any given topic of a debate. Other than that, (Mason, 2007) also illustrated on some argument that critical thinking is most importantly a critical attitude or disposition, such as the tendency to ask probing questions, or a critical orientation, or some such attribute intrinsic to character.

As before, there is also question about the strength of this finding as Hill (1993) (as cited from Colbert, 1995) articulates that data are insufficient to demonstrate a debate-critical thinking relationship. Based on this notion, it can be related to the problems highlighted by Greenstreet (1993) on why there is no scientifically-gathered data to prove the claim that debate enhances the critical thinking ability of its participants:

"One reason is that the variable (debate) is usually experienced during long periods of time (typically the academic year), while the subjects to be studied (debaters) are exposed to a great many phenomena, some of which are also designed to improve their critical thinking ability"

Based on the Greenstreet (1993) perspective, the problems arise because students are not only exposed to debate activity during the whole year course but also other academic inputs that will also help them to mature and think critically. With the presence of other factors that might contribute to the improvements in critical thinking, it can be understood that debate is not the sole factor that increases student's maturity in thinking ability.

It is also important to realise that critical thinking among professionals is highly sought after. Some research have been conducted about the importance of critical thinking in areas such as accounting and business professional (Reinstein & Lander, 2008) which proves its importance. Besides, scientists also need to have good reasoning expertise in order for them to understand better about the causes of phenomena as well as politicians who are the ones to decide which policies should its society adopt (Thomson, 2009). All of these have emphasized the needs of critical thinking among working professionals. Without these abilities, a person might be incompetent in their field, thus being less desired by their employer. A non-critical thinker would be prone to make unpopular decisions and these will lead to problems both for the company and the society.

In order to produce professionals with such ability, the process must start early in the education process such as at the high school level. Students in high school are only one step away from entering the university. It is important for them to be exposed to an environment that requires them to think critically. Since most of the schools in Malaysia are active in debating, it is possible for debate to be a tool in their learning process. However, the problem that arises is that only students who joined the debating team were exposed to the activity. In class teaching rarely includes debate as one of its learning tool. It is also suggested that debate is a type of experiential learning which makes the student be able to understand a topic better rather than the traditional teaching method such as lecture and essay exercise (Christudason, 2003). The participations of student in the debate process such as argumentation and analyzing ideas will prevent lack of focus on that topic. Without deep research to grasp important knowledge on an issue, a student will not be able to state his point clearly.

In this section, the claims made from past researches in critical thinking have been explained. It is also pointed out that there is a lack of quantitative tests conducted to determine the relationship between debate and critical thinking. In addition to that, this section also illustrates the importance of critical thinking to working professionals. The practice of debating in Malaysian education system was also highlighted. Another issue would be the reliability of a smaller test group and smaller period of time be enough to prove that there is a quantitative relationship between debate and critical thinking skills.


Null Hypothesis: There is no significance in mean difference in the pre and post-test of the treatment group for the critical thinking skills using the New Jersey Test of Reasoning Skills (NJTRs.). Hence, there is no relationship between English debate and critical thinking.


This debate project was divided into eight separate phases. The first stage was the critical thinking test. The variable group which is the form 4 students were given a set of critical thinking test to be answered. For this research project, the New Jersey Test of Reasoning Skills (NJTRs) was used and it comprised 50 multiple-choice questions. The purpose of critical thinking assessments is vast. One reason might be that this test will clarify the ability of students to identify aspects of critical thinking such as assumptions (Ennis, 1993). Students were given an hour to complete the critical thinking test. The second stage was training of judges for the debate competition. Since students of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) of Malay College Kuala Kangsar were in-charge of judging the debate, they were given the know how to run a debate competition and were trained on how to be a good adjudicators by a group of debaters from a local university. During the training, a mock debate was held and the IBDP students were given the chance to give their comments and critics. The next phase which was the third stage involved the Form 4 students attending a debate workshop. Before the workshop, students were grouped according to their respective sports houses (Sulaiman, Ahmad, Mohd Shah and Idris). After that, a talk on debating was given after which a mock debate was held to give a clear understanding to all the students on how the debate will be conducted. The talk was given by the IBDP students in charge. The fourth stage of the project is the Debate Competition itself. Students and their debate partners were selected automatically by the IBDP students committee in charge. Then, debate schedules were drawn and put up on strategic places to notify the students. They were 4 rounds of preliminary debate and the team which obtained the highest accumulated score would be debating during the final round. Generally, there were 5 rounds of debate involved in this process. The point system for the debate was managed by the IBDP student committee. For every debating round, motions were announced to the students 30 minutes prior to the debate and they were allowed to make their own preparations. During the fifth stage of the project, four teams which obtained the highest score from the preliminary round debated in the final round of the competition. There were slight changes for the final round where students were required to debate on two separate motions compared to only one motion for each debate during the preliminary rounds. The next stage was the post-critical thinking test. The same reasoning test was used as the pre-test earlier. Their marks were analyzed and compared with the pre critical thinking test results to mark any significant in difference. The seventh stage was the survey process where students were given a set of questionnaire to be answered. The questionnaire comprised of 13 questions. This provided more understanding on the student experience of the debate process. The results from the survey were used to improve and strengthen the findings from the pre and post critical thinking test.

Conducting the debate

Debate Rules

For the debate competition, the rules followed the Middle School Public Debate Programme (MSPDP) ( The rules of the competition were based on 7 key areas which are:

Debate Topics

Debate Fixture Postings

Number of teams and Debaters

Speaking Order and Speaking Time Limits

Preparation Period

Point of Information

Judge Training and Decision making

The debate competition was held for the Form 4 students of The Malay College Kuala Kangsar students.

Debate Topics

In debate, the topic is called a motion. Issues that were covered or debated by the students encompass a wide scope of issues such as education, family, technology, sports, health and culture. In this debate, the topic would be impromptu in order to make the students think faster and more critically. Thus, the students who would be debating will only be informed about the topic when the debate is about to start. The topics were set according to the rounds. This means the level of difficulty of the topics will increase after each round.

Debate Fixture Postings

A debate notice contained the following information details:

Debate matches

Date of debate



Time keeper's name

Debate fixtures were announced to the students and the notice were put up in all the classes with the students involved. Below is an example of a debate fixture posting:




Room 1:




Time Keeper: Aiman bin Mustafa




Judge: Ismail bin Ibrahim

Date: 20thMay 2012







Number of teams and debaters

This debate competition adopted the parliamentary debate style. In a normal parliamentary debate, there are two sides:

The proposition (supporting the motion) and

The opposition (opposing the motion).

However, for the purpose of this research, the debate style was changed to a debate with 4 sides. This was to ensure that the time taken would not exceed the time period allocated by the school authority.

The opening proposition (supporting the motion)

The opening opposition (opposing the motion)

The closing proposition (supporting the motion)

The closing opposition (opposing the motion)

Since the Malay College Kuala Kangsar has the four sports houses which are; Ahmad House, Idris House, Mohd Shah House and Sulaiman House, this research would be getting these four houses involved in the debate competition. Thus, students from each the four houses would represent their own sports house. At every debate venue, each sports house was represented by 2 debaters. From the proposition side, there would be four debaters from two sports houses. For the opposition team, there would also be four debaters from two sports houses. Thus, there would be 8 debaters in a single round of debate at each venue. In the debate, the proposition would argue the topic by making a case for the motion and defending it from the opposition attacks and rebuttals. For an opposition side to win, they must disprove the case made by the motion.

Speaking order and speaking time limit

Every round of debate would start with the first speaker of the opening proposition team. In a debate, the role of the first speaker is very crucial. Based on (, there are 4 important things the first speaker needs to do:

Provide the team's definition of the motion

Provide the clarifications and parameters

Outlines case definitions for Proposition

Delivers 2 or 3 substantive arguments in support of the motion

The second and the third speaker would then deliver their arguments while giving rebuttals of the other side. Rebuttal is the act of criticizing the arguments made by their opponents ( The role of the second speaker from the proposition side and the opposition side is quite similar. According to (, both the second speaker from the proposition and the opposition side needs to defend their team's substantive arguments and rebuts on the opponents arguments. However, it is important for the second speaker of the proposition to defend their definition while second speaker of the opposition to re-challenge the definition given. The speaking order and time limit of the debate follows the following order:






1st Speaker, PROPOSITION opening

3-4 minutes




3-4 minutes


2ndSpeaker PROPOSITION opening

3-4 minutes


2ndSpeaker OPPOSITION opening

3-4 minutes



1stSpeaker, PROPOSITION closing

3-4 minutes


1st Speaker, OPPOSITION


3-4 minutes


2ndSpeaker, PROPOSITION closing

3-4 minutes


2nd Speaker, OPPOSITION


3-4 minutes

Preparation Period

After the debate topic was given to the students, they were allocated only 30 minutes for preparation time. Debaters were allowed to discuss on the topics given with their debate partners.

The sources of data to be analyzed would come from:

Questionnaire findings - from the entire form 4 students who participated in the debate competition.

The marks from the Critical Thinking test analysis and comparisons.

Data and Analysis


Paired Sample Statistics




Number of Samples

Standard Deviation

Standard Mean Error

Pair 1











Paired Sample Test

Paired Differences



Standard Deviation

Standard Error Mean

Pair 1





After the data was gathered, the paired difference test was used to examine this hypothesis by using the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) software. The difference in mean marks between Pre and Post-Test of Critical Thinking were shown from the graph above. For the pre-test, the mean marks of the students were 33.13. After the debate competition was held, another post critical thinking test was conducted for the students. Mean marks for the post-test was found to be 35.98 which is 2.85 marks higher than the pre-test. It can be noted that the post critical thinking test have a higher mean marks compared to the pre-test which is contradictory to the null hypothesis created earlier in the project. The result showed that there was adequate evidence to reject the null hypothesis. This is shown by the two-tailed significant of (p < 0.002). Hence, there was a statistically significant mean difference for the critical thinking in the group of students who joined the debate competition.

Questionnaire Data

The results from the pre- and post-critical thinking test showed only a slight significance in the average improvements of the marks. It would not be a strong basis to lead to a conclusion that the debate competition held significantly improved the students' critical thinking ability. Thus, the results might be argued on its reliability and accuracy. This survey is intended to better understand the students learning experience throughout the debating process. Students who were involved in the debate competition were asked to answer a set of questionnaire. In the questionnaire, there are 13 questions being set specifically for quantitative analysis which are related to the improvements on their critical thinking ability. Results from the questionnaire given were shown graphically.

This debate activity helps me to argue better:

57% of students strongly agreed that they felt debate have helped them to argue about a certain topic. Since argument is an important aspect of critical thinking, this suggests that their ability have improved.

This activity helps me to defend my points better:

51% of the students strongly agreed that they were able to defend their points better after each round of debate. 46% agreed on the question. This indicates a very strong evidence of how debate improves their ability to defend their statements during debate and also in class discussions later on.

This debate activity helps me to think fast:

57% of the students strongly felt debate had helped them to think faster and another 35% of the students agreed on the statement. These figures suggest that short period of preparation time before a debate required the students to think faster and also helped them positively.

This debate activity helps me to question more about assumptions the opponents made:

54% of the students involved strongly felt that debate have helped them to become more inquisitive and not to accept assumptions stated by the oppositions without questioning further. Another 35% students also felt that they tend to question more about statements by their respective opponents.

I have the tendency to ask probing questions:

33% of the students strongly felt that they have the tendency to make their opponent think more deeply by asking probing questions. 43% agreed with the statement. However, 5% of the students disagree with this claim.

I feel my reasoning skills have improved:

54% students who were involved in the debate strongly agreed that their reasoning skills have improved. 41% also agreed on that statement. Only 5% students unsure about whether they feel their reasoning skills have improved or not.

I was able to elaborate my points better each round:

Most of the students felt that they were able to elaborate and speak more about their points after each round of debate. This is proved as 49% strongly agreed with that statement and another 38% also agrees with it.

I was actively listening to other people's arguments:

Around 38% of the students strongly agreed that they were actively listening to their opponent's arguments. The same percentage of students also agrees with it. However, there is small percentage of students which is 5% and 3% disagreed with this claim. This suggests that majority of students who were involved in the debate were focused on the points given by their opponents.

I was able to see the positive and negative points of an argument:

Overall, it is found that student were able to see different perspectives from an argument or a point. 46% of students involved with the debate strongly agreed with this statement. However, there were also a small percentage of students who disagreed with this issue. This shows that majority of students showed critical awareness after each round of debate.

I was able to engage in the debate better after each round:

41% of the students strongly agreed that they felt improvements in their participations after each round of debate. This shows that they were able to contribute more to the debate with their arguments. 32% were unsure about this statement and there is only 3% of them disagreed with it.

I learn how to organize my ideas:

Majority of the students felt that they learned how to organize their ideas better through debate. Around 51% of the students strongly agreed with this statement. There were also 3% of the students felt that they disagree with this statement. It can be assumed that argumentation process in debating which requires organization and flow of ideas leads to these improvements.

I was able to take in large chunk of information:

It was found that 30% of the students strongly agreed and 43% agreed that they were able to take in large chunk of information through the debate process. There is only a small percentage of students disagreed with it.

I was able to summarise the points the students gave:

In order to give rebuttals from the points given by their opponents, student needs to summarise the points effectively. Majority of the students agreed that they were able to do it. It was also noted that one many students were also having trouble acquiring this ability through the debate process.

Summary and analysis of student's survey

More than 60% of the students responded positively about how they felt about their critical thinking ability gained from the debating process. It is consistent that the percentage of the students who felt improvements throughout the debate is more than students who responded negatively. For example, the ability of seeing different perspectives of a point is important in critical thinking. The results from that question shows that 86% of the students agreed on that matter. This suggests that many students were aware of the aspects needed in critical thinking and were able to integrate it in their debate. Overall, it is found that majority of the students felt that the debate competition helped them very significantly in the development of their critical thinking ability. From the 13 questions given, there were a very high percentage of students who responded 'strongly agreed' to questions that asked them about improvements in critical thinking. It is found that the overall perception of students towards the debate is 83.8%. As the percentage is more than two-third or 66% of the overall response, it can be claimed that students felt the effect of debate on critical thinking. It was also noted that there was very small percentage of students responded negatively on that. This shows that the short period of debate competition process were able to trigger the development of the student mind to think critically or at least making the students to feel the impact on them. Although the pre- and post-critical thinking test shows only a slight difference, this survey would support the finding that debate competition improved students' critical thinking ability.


Based on detailed investigation on the debate project, it is found that there is a relationship between debate and critical thinking ability. From the pre-test, the mean marks of the New Jersey Test of Reasoning Skills (NJTRS) is slightly lower compared the post-test results. This leads to the assumption that the debate competition had some positive impacts towards the student's critical thinking skills. However, the small mean difference of the pre and post -test also suggest that there is little significance towards the relationship between debate and critical thinking skills. The students who were involved in the debating activity agreed that the experience have made them improve in certain aspects of thinking and communication. The debating process have made them inclined to ask probing questions and also more able to evaluate the perspectives of an argument. Henceforth, the null hypothesis developed earlier is rejected as there is significance in mean difference of pre and post critical thinking test, further supported by the questionnaire findings which demonstrate positive response from students towards debate-critical thinking correlation.

As the findings suggested, positive response towards debate should be seen as an opportunity towards establishing an in class teaching environment which utilizes debate as a mechanism to improve the ability of students to analyse, synthesise and evaluate information they gathered in the learning process. Hall (2011) commented on debate as the following:

"It is the process by which students prepare, anticipate, and participate in the debate that enhances communication skills, improves critical thinking and problem solving, and develops confidence and respect"

The idea on benefits of debate to the students suggested by Hall (2011) is agreeable in this context when compared with the results of the survey towards student's perceptions on the debate competition. Thus, academic performance of the student would be inclined to improve not only in their high school but also in their further studies. Since critical thinking is also a need in professional career level (Reinstein & Lander, 2008) critical thinking development should be emphasised to provide students with necessary skills for the competitive and challenging future.

Limitation and issues for consideration

This research however has some limitation. For example, this research does not investigate the comparison between a control group and treatment group (Ennis, 1993). Due to this factor, the reliability of the significance in mean difference of pre and post critical thinking test can be questioned. Thus, it can be suggested that a control group would be an aspect that should be taken into consideration for further improvements. Other than that, this research used the New Jersey Test of Reasoning Skills test as both pre- and post-test. Ennis (1993) points out the problem of using the same test for both pre and post-test as alerting the students on the similar test questions. However, this problem would not be too significant as the aim of comparing the data is about the exact content of the test itself. This debate competition project was completed in such a short time period. There were only 4 preliminary rounds of debate held before proceeding to the final debate, hence limiting the amount of time that students were exposed to an environment which promoted critical thinking. In a way, this might affect the significance of the findings which are the comparison between the pre- and post-critical thinking test.